Monthly Archives: September 2014

“The Spanish Civil War”




Outside the walls of Toledo. At the start of the Civil War in 1936, a Nationalist garrison of 2000 in the fort of the Alcazar was besieged by a larger Republican army for two months, but was finally relieved. The successful resistance proved a significant morale-booster for the Nationalists.


Although it was undoubtedly a brutal and angry conflict, I have always felt able to see the Spanish Civil War, because of the many memorable artistic responses to it, as a fascinating and heroic historical event.

Chicken Soup with Barley by Arnold Wesker, the poetry of W.H. Auden, Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica,  Robert Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic, Republican songs  like “Bandiera Rossa”.  As Eric Hobsbawn said, the Spanish Civil War is one of the few occasions  when history has not been written by the victors.

I can’t recall exactly why it was such a topic of such attention in the early 1980s. Possibly because of the fierce arguments and tensions within left-wing politics at that time, possibly because of the imminent arrival of that politically and culturally iconic year 1984.

I especially remember a brilliant Edinburgh Fringe show in 1982 by Cambridge REDS called And I Remember Spain,  a dramatised compilation of various writings and music from the Civil War.  I long ago discarded any programme and the internet frustratingly yields no information, but the text may have been based on a 1974 anthology of the same title by one  Murray Sperber.

In 1984 itself, I saw some of a Channel 4 documentary series called The Spanish Civil War. The sort of serious programme which we took for granted in the early days of Channel 4, when the channel had the benefit of the regional ITV companies as well as the new independent producers.

Rediscovering  it on You Tube, I saw for the first time that the script had been written by the great Scottish journalist Neal Ascherson, of whose Observer writings, especially on Eastern Europe, I was an avid reader at that time.



Girona Cathedral. Girona was in Republican-held territory during the Civil War until the Nationalists took it in February 1939. Its fall signalled the  beginning of the end of the Civil War.


Directed  by David Hart for Granada TV, it has a visual style which harks back to earlier famous series like The Great War and the The World at War. A dense text full of detailed references to the revolution, to the various disparate factions within the two forces and to their  forgotten leaders.  A grave  disembodied commentary voice – in this case belonging to Frank Finlay. Evocative film footage, movie as well as still. And, especially, eye-witness accounts which really do come from a totally different time and place, spoken by people who look far younger than the 70 or 80 years old that in most cases they must have been.



Ronda. A massacre of Nationalist supporters took place here at the start of the Civil War. They were forced to run the gauntlet from the former town hall (the large building in the centre) and were thrown over the bridge to their deaths. Ernest Hemingway used the incident in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”.


In documentaries now we seem so dependent on a template of camera close-ups, intrusive music, pregnant pauses and tearful testimony.  Here, in contrast, male and female witnesses  are permitted to speak in a dispassionate straightforward way about the violence, treachery, suffering and sacrifice, giving an honest record of memories and feelings, either not receiving or ignoring any prompts from the unseen interviewer.  Editing and music is applied in a restrained fashion.  Only one (male) witness is seen in tears, and the commentary draws attention to this as unusual and unavoidable: a man who remembers his socialist father killed after the Civil War by local Nationalists and how he had to continue living normally near the people whom he knew were responsible.

A few contributors are English-speaking, notably the Scots journalist Willie Forrest. His obituary here adds further information about what an amazing person he must have been.



Plaza Major in Madrid. The capital, held by the Republican government, was under constant attack by the Nationalists throughout the Civil War.



Cordoba, which was occupied by Nationalist forces during the Civil War.



Barcelona Cathedral. Barcelona was the Republican government capital from 1937 but fell to the Nationalists in January 1939.



Dancing the Sardana outside Barcelona Cathedral. This traditional Catalan dance was banned by General Franco after the Spanish Civil War.




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A taste of Southern Gothic


Which of the five senses is best used to evoke the dramatic world of Tennessee Williams?

Smell?  One of the first descriptions I ever read about Williams said that his plays, and their film versions, were set in “the rotting South”.

Or hearing? Those loud shrill voices, in distinctive accents, of accusation, confrontation and recrimination?

Or sight? Since so many of Williams’ plays were filmed in the 1950s and 1960s you might always associate their look with those distinctive clothes fashions, either in classic monochrome or in the bright colours which big-budget Hollywood at that time also adopted.

Or taste? Something like game, strongly flavoured and definitely not suiting everyone’s stomach.

When I was young those films were frequently on TV, but they are now judged to be sufficiently old-fashioned (probably because they are so obviously based on stage plays) that they are almost never screened.

Yet many of the great actors of the period acted in them. Elizabeth Taylor (three times);  Paul Newman (twice); Marlon Brando (twice); Katherine Hepburn; Burt Lancaster; Montgomery Clift; Richard Burton (twice); Jane Fonda; Robert Redford.

Perhaps only Elia Kazan’s original adaptation of  A Streetcar Named Desire  is still regarded as a successful film in its own right,  but surely the others might be shown more often if only because of the talents of those still famous names who performed in them.

Earlier this year, BBC2 screened Cat on a Hot Tin Roofstarring Taylor and Newman, directed by Richard Brooks. Its narrative and structure do seem a bit strange,  I agree – a lot of characters drinking a lot and shouting at each other over who had told which lies about sexuality, pregnancy, terminal illness. With a lot of thunder and lightning in the background to intensify the mood.

But, to future audiences,  will it really seem more artificial and bizarre than the current fashion for films of fantasy and super-heroes?


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The joys of non-alcoholic drink


James Boswell, a man who liked his food and drink, once put on record his preference for tea over wine. “ (Tea) comforts and enlivens without the risks attendant on spirituous liquors ,” he wrote in his London Diary. “ Gentle herb! Let the florid grape yield to thee. Thy soft influence is a more safe inspirer of social joy.”

The former Czech President Vaclav Havel agreed.  Not only was tea valuable as both a physical stimulant and relaxation, he wrote to his wife Olga while in prison;  the habits and rituals which he and his fellow prisoners created around the making and drinking of tea were essential survival techniques. First, because “when and how I make it is entirely up to me…I realize myself as a free being…capable of looking after myself”. Second, it encouraged “private contemplation” and therefore “inner freedom”. Third, because “sitting down to a cup of tea here is a substitute for the world of bars, wine rooms, parties”, it is the way “in which you realize your freedom in social terms”.

Around the time I first came across the name of James Boswell, I was still paying close attention to Marvel Comics. I remember a scene (in an issue of, possibly, The Fantastic Four or The X-Men) where a character had invented a drink called the Vibra-Broth. (This memory, however, cannot be confirmed, exasperatingly, anywhere on the comics- and fantasy-obsessed internet!)  Another character, sampling this, said, “It makes it seem as if my troubles are just melting away”. In my innocent pre-alcohol youth, this sounded like an amazing innovation, but, a few years later, I appreciated that this was an attractive characteristic already available in wine or spirits.

The problem of how to balance the advantages and disadvantages of alcohol is supernaturally solved in the wonderful Christmas film The Bishop’s Wife. The angel Dudley has cast a spell, or perhaps a blessing, over the sherry decanter of Professor Wutheridge – and the latter finds to his astonishment that now the drink “warms but does not inebriate”.


Reference :

Boswell, James (1950)  Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763  ed. Frederick A. Pottle   London : Heinemann


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